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Handling A Lice Outbreak Like a Boss

Handling A Lice Outbreak Like a Boss

Lice are gross. We can all agree on that. And, like most gross things, they happen and there really isn’t a heck of a lot we can do about it. Sure, you can use shampoo to repel them and reduce the risk, but gross still happens. So how do you handle a lice outbreak like a boss when it does happen?

First, accept the realities. Imagine a Mount Everest of laundry, now double it. Now accept that you will be doing AT LEAST that much within 24 hours of figuring out the outbreak. Every day after that for a week, you will have to wash sheets, pillowcases, towels, and some clothing and at least dry it on hot. “They” advise that you don’t actually have to do this, and that’s probably true – for anyone with short hair. If you have someone with long hair and lice, it really doesn’t seem worth the risk. Just wash the pillowcases, towels, and anything else likely to have shed hair on it daily.

Second, you will have to vacuum, sweep, and otherwise clean up any and all random hair every day. And you should soak all hair brushes and combs in alcohol in between uses until the nightmare ends. (I did not. Learn from my mistake – those little @#$ can re-infest is you aren’t basically paranoid.)

Third, the ONLY way to avoid nit picking with a nit comb is to shave all the hair off the person’s head. And nit-picking blows. My son’s hair is less than a half inch and it STILL took me 30-40 minutes every single time I went through it for the first few days. And this should be done at least twice a day as long as you are finding nits or lice. Then you will still want to check at least every other day until you are sure they aren’t coming back, and that means two to three weeks from the last sighting. WEEKS!

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Life Cycle Basics

These little buggers are teeny-tiny – the size of a sesame seed, which is smaller than the head of a pin. Adults may be a little bigger than that, but they are still really hard to see. They are white, tan, or gray, light-colored. Unlike dandruff, they won’t fly off if you see one on a head and blow on it. Also unlike most dandruff, they are oval, not irregularly shaped. When you are absolutely positive you have gotten the last of them, congrats! You only need to nit pick for another two or three weeks. Seriously. I actually had a professional tell me my scalp was squeaky clean, not even any dandruff, and they still re-infested my head. Just under three weeks later, I found two full-size lice because I had slacked off on the nit-picking and they were too small to be seen with the human eye when she was here. Naturally, they had restarted the cycle. Again.

That’s what they do. They are born, mature a bit, lay eggs, and start the cycle over again. Lice stay close to the scalp, so when they lay their eggs (“nits”) on a hair, they are still close to your scalp. They don’t naturally venture far from your scalp. Any egg sacks that are more than 1/4 inch from the end of a hair shaft have probably already hatched. When you use the nit comb to get out any lice and nits, you must start right at the scalp or it is a waste of time.

Lice evolved over millennia to live on humans. They are good at it, and very hard to get rid of. It takes persistence and a lot of nit picking.

Remedies

There are a lot of home remedies, but schools tend to want kids to use the chemical shampoo before returning to class so I’ll cover that first. Once they use that, all is well with the schools, but I don’t know how a school would respond to a kid coming back if they were strictly using home remedies. It might be fine, but some schools still want kids to stay home if they have lice, so it might not be.

Lice Shampoo

Most “lice shampoo” is based on permethrin, a truly nasty chemical that kills and repels all kinds of insects, including mosquitos and ticks. We have sprayed it on clothing for that purpose. The instructions say, repeatedly, not to get any on your skin and if you do, basically scrub it off faster than ASAP. The spray stays on clothing for up to three months or six washings.

The shampoo instructions say to leave it on for ten minutes, no more or less, before lathering and rinsing it out, then don’t shampoo for a day or two. When I did further research online, it turns out that the shampoo continues to kill lice and nits for at least a week. With daily hair washing, that’s roughly the same as the clothing: six washings. And that explains why it is schools preferred method: even if there are lice still on a kids’ head, they are terminal.

As if having scary chemicals on your head for at least a week isn’t bad enough, it turns out that these shampoos can cause asthma flare-ups and allergy issues. (Something derived from chrysanthemums is used in it.) After two days, our son was needing his inhaler frequently, which is unusual for him. Luckily for him, this was just after I started using vinegar as a home-remedy and he was back to normal quickly because it stripped the shampoo residue from his hair. (That also means the shampoo stopped working at that point.)

Also, lice are becoming immune to the shampoo. Stronger stuff (!) is available by prescription, but that prospect is a bit scary to me.

Home Remedies

If this ever happened in the summer, I would avoid the shampoo and go straight to vinegar. In my online research, I was assured that it doesn’t work and neither does olive oil – by sites pushing the lice shampoo. Here’s the thing: vinegar is not a growth medium. NOTHING thrives in vinegar. NOTHING. Will it work if you leave it on your head for five or ten minutes, then shampoo it out? I can’t imagine it will. It does take time. I soaked my hair in vinegar, then put on a disposable shower cap, wrapped a towel around my neck to catch any drips, and left it that way for an hour. I’ll be honest, the skin exposed to the vinegar was bright red and uncomfortable, but it quickly went back to normal after I rinsed the vinegar off. After I started using the vinegar, activity dropped like a rock

I soaked my hair in vinegar, then put on a disposable shower cap, wrapped a towel around my neck to catch any drips, and left it that way for an hour. I’ll be honest, the skin exposed to the vinegar was bright red and uncomfortable, but it quickly went back to normal after I rinsed the vinegar off. After I started using the vinegar, lice activity dropped like a rock.

We ended up having a service come out and they swear by olive oil, but you have to leave your head and hair saturated for eight hours to suffocate the little beasties. I did that repeatedly, as advised, and still had two survive to mate and re-start the nightmare because I slacked off on the nit-picking. The company advises thoroughly cleaning them all out, then having your hair coated for at least eight hours (overnight), covered with a shower cap or plastic, four days in a row. Then every three days after that until it has been three weeks since you started the process.

A spray bottle can make applying vinegar or oil easier.

Laundry

Like I said, expect A LOT of it, and you must use hot water (washer) or hot air (dryer) for at least twenty minutes per load to kill them.

Hair Care

I loathe pesticides and chemicals so putting permethrin on my family’s heads goes against the grain, but it really can help shorten the process. The bottle we bought clearly stated it needs to be on for ten minutes, but no more than ten minutes, so make sure to have a timer handy and use it.

Nit picking is essential. My head was determined to be clear, but I was told to continue nit picking for any stragglers that were too small to be seen at that point. As I already mentioned, I wasn’t diligent enough and had a reinfestation. Take the nit picking seriously, and keep at it until two to three weeks after you see the last one. Yes, I already said that, but it’s important.

Environment

Your house is about to get cleaned. Since lice lay eggs on hair and those eggs take days to hatch, any random hair laying around on a sofa, mattress, pillowcase, etc. could be home to some freshly-hatched lice unless it has been subjected to the very high heat of a high-temp wash/dry cycle or it is more than two weeks old. The carpet, all linens (including towels), mattresses, and sofas, at a minimum, must be thoroughly cleaned or avoided for two weeks. Either choice generally blows.

The “old” advice is to bag or wash everything, including stuffed animals. Honestly, we moved a big stack of plush, less-used pillows, etc. into the guest room and left them there for two weeks without bagging them. Since no one was touching them, that was enough. We also gave each person with lice a designated pillow to use on the sofa and everyone else avoided using those.

We washed the pillowcases for them daily. And we used smaller throw pillows at night because they are faster and easier to wash and dry than regular bed pillows, especially foam or feather filled ones. The regular pillows were put to the side until the all-clear was given because they wouldn’t stand up to repeated washings.

Being Judged

Yes, you will be judged by those who find out – but not for having lice. The other parents will judge you for how you handle it. Did you notify the school fast enough and give them enough information? Did you treat your kids with all the chemicals they would have used? Or did you avoid chemicals and use only home-remedies the way they think is best? Did you use those on every single person in your house, even if you didn’t see any evidence on their head? Did you notify the school for every child in your house, even if the other kids didn’t have any signs or symptoms? Did you tell everyone in every extracurricular? Every friend they visited in the last month? It can, honestly, get a bit ridiculous.

I got a bit of a tongue-lashing from another parent about how I should’ve dropped everything, told everyone either of my kids was anywhere near (even though one had no signs, symptoms, or realistic chance of being infested), etc. After all, she spent alot of hours combing through her kids hair when they had an issue! I cut my son’s hair to almost stubble as soon as it happened, used lice shampoo, nit picked, sooo…. But I was still judged. ((shrug)) You just can’t make everyone happy.

Prevention

Don’t share hats, towels, pillows, hairbrushes, or anything else likely to have stray hairs on it with a person with an active lice infestation.

Tea tree oil and eucalyptus oil have been shown to be effective at keeping the little beasties from infesting a head, but they have less value at getting them to leave once they are there. The easiest ways to use them are by either buying a shampoo that contains them or buying the oil and adding it to an unscented shampoo (like baby shampoo) yourself. You can also infuse water with them and mist bedding and furniture with it. Since the little beasties don’t like it, they avoid areas that smell of tea tree or eucalyptus so this should help lessen re-infestation issues.

Final Thoughts

Nothing works 100%, except nit picking. Oil, vinegar, essential oils, lice shampoo – none of it. But they can help. Choose the one that works for you. I like vinegar because it doesn’t risk an asthma flare, I don’t have to be precise on timing, and it doesn’t require eight hours on your head like olive oil.

About

The Wise Mom (Liz Long) and the Wise Dad have two sons, who are currently in middle and high school. She has published half a dozen books including "The Constitution: It's the OS for the US", a YA zombie series, and a series on survival skills (including laundry, hygiene, and budgeting, as well as outdoor and emergency skills). She also blogs on TheModerateMom.com and contributes to TheSurvivalMom.com.

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